'Tell them nothing till it's over and then tell them who won'

In wartime, government considers media a menace

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LONDON — There is an irreconcilable conflict in the way war is reported, highlighted once again by the allied attack on Afghanistan and the anthrax terror in the United States. Two quotations explain this conflict better than any reasoned argument.

A government censor, asked in 1943 what he thought the American public should be told about the war, replied: “I’d tell them nothing till its over and then I’d tell them who won.”

And the BBC broadcaster Sir Robin Day pondering on whether uninhibited reporting in Vietnam had led to Americas defeat there, doubted whether a democracy would ever be able to fight a war again, no matter how just, because of television news.

There we have it. Governments and their armies go to war to win and do not care how they do it. For them, the media are a menace. Only in wars of national survival, such as the Second World War, can they count on the media to support them to the hilt. Reuters war correspondent Charles Lynch said, “It’s humiliating to look back at what we wrote during the war. It was crap — and I don’t exclude the Ernie Pyles or the Alan Mooreheads. We were just a propaganda arm of our governments.”

But in other wars— the Falklands, the Gulf War, Kosovo and now Afghanistan — no government can automatically assume that the media will be “on side.” And without the media on side, public support for the war could well ebb away.

In democracies like Britain and Australia, with a powerful press and a tradition of dissent, or like the United States, where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed, the media cannot be coerced into supporting the war. They have to be seduced or intimidated into self-censorship.

So in all the countries supporting the attack on Afghanistan, we have already seen appeals to the media’s patriotism, the national interest, security and the need to support “our boys.” This has been combined with accusations that the media have favored the enemy, endangered the safety of the nation’s leaders, stabbed the troops in the back, fallen for enemy propaganda and sabotaged the war effort. Australia has been calmer because the “detachment of distance” lends an air of unreality to what is going on in the Northern Hemisphere.

But in Britain, the prime minister, Tony Blair, summoned media bosses to Downing Street and asked them to agree not to rebroadcast messages from Osama bin Laden, particularly recorded videos, because they might contain coded messages to his followers. Or they might encourage British Muslims to volunteer for service with the Taliban.

The American defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, warned the American media chiefs that they could expect little cooperation from the Pentagon because this was a new type of war in which secrecy was paramount.

Images of bomb victims

Of course, the real reason Blair and Rumsfeld wanted to control the flow of news from Afghanistan was concern that images of civilian bomb victims would shake public support for the Western alliance. An attack led by two powerful industrial nations against a Third World agricultural one, already reduced to ruin and in the grip of a famine, was never going to be an edifying sight or an easy one to sell.

It depended on convincing the public that this was purely a war on terrorism, that the West has no quarrel with the people of Afghanistan and no quarrel with Islam. Only the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s forces would be attacked.

The latest high-tech weaponry, with its pinpoint accuracy, would keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Bloody TV footage or grim still photographs of civilian bomb victims would threaten this most outrageous piece of propaganda, so an essential part of the Western alliance’s strategy has been not only to bomb in the dark but, as far as possible, to keep the public in the dark as well.

With no war correspondents on the ground where the bombs and missiles are striking, hundreds of correspondents have gathered across the borders in nearby countries, where they have been reduced to reporting rumors. TV anchor men back home have had to telephone the latest news to their correspondents in the field so that they can then interview them on air. By force of circumstance, the main source of news has become official statements. Thus, the reporting of war has come full circle. Before William Howard Russell of The Times [of London] became the first civilian war correspondent in the Crimean War (1854-56), generals reported their own wars — Wellington on Waterloo, for instance.

Now, nearly 150 years later, if we want to know what is happening in Afghanistan, we turn on CNN and there is an American four-star general, medals glinting in the spotlight, telling us what he has decided we should know. “How many Taliban were killed, general?” — “I don’t want to discuss casualties.” “Were any Americans killed?” — “I’m not going to get into that.”

The danger of trusting only official sources emerged when the U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman admitted that a 1,000 pound bomb aimed at a Taliban vehicle depot had gone astray and landed near a “senior citizens’ residence,” causing an unknown number of casualties. This statement caused some bewilderment (to say the least) among aid agencies, which said that old people’s homes are virtually nonexistent in Afghanistan, where the average life expectancy is 40 years.

Media have no choice

Never mind, thought the Western media. When the land invasion gets under way, the Pentagon will no doubt accredit at least a few war correspondents, probably under a “pool” system, like in the Gulf War. (Five or six correspondents accompanied the armed forces there and wrote stories that were then distributed to all the media.)

Think again. A war correspondent for the American armed forces’ own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, told me in late October that he had just been informed of a Pentagon ruling that even he would not be allowed to accompany any invasion force and nor would any other correspondent.

Will the media bosses accept this? They have no choice. If reporters enter Afghanistan on their own and against the militarys wishes, they will risk being killed by the Taliban, who think all reporters are spies, or risk being arrested by their own side.

Newspapers and broadcasters could mount a legal action in the United States claiming that their right of freedom of expression had been infringed. The major American media groups considered such an action during the Gulf War but fell to quarrelling among themselves and dropped it. The left-wing magazine The Nation pushed ahead on its own, but the war ended before the court could deliver a decision. The judge did suggest, however, that The Nation had a case.

It is likely that the American media realize that Rumsfeld is right about this being a different war in which the old rules of reporting do not apply. This would explain why it is concentrating on the home front news — the battle against anthrax terrorism. The newspaper and TV programs are empty of news from Afghanistan. But here, too, freedom of expression is in danger.

The news organizations appear to be censoring themselves.

Their argument is that round-the-clock coverage of the anthrax attacks is frightening Americans and risks creating panic. In a late October CNN discussion, several panelists argued that there was too much news of anthrax and that the media should lay off for a while.

In Britain, the BBC guidelines on reporting the war urge its correspondents and editors to be careful in referring to chemical and biological terrorism. “The possibility of their use is to be discussed calmly . . . If their use is rumoured only, our reports must not be alarmist or excited.”

Stories deserving attention

Given all these difficulties, what stories in this war have not had the attention they deserved? First and foremost, the effect of the bombing on the civilian population of Afghanistan — although by Oct. 25, newspapers in Britain were beginning to carry reports and photographs of victims. “Families blown apart, infants dying. The terrible images of this just war,” said The Independent.

The extent of the opposition to the war. When readers of The Guardian wrote complaining that antiwar marches were not mentioned in the paper, the readers editor reported that he had raised this at an editorial meeting only to be told that it was not the papers policy to cover marches. The next day, the paper carried a correction saying that it WAS the papers policy to cover antiwar marches if newsworthy, and it would do so in future.

The oil conspiracy theory. Early in the bombing of Afghanistan, rumors that the United States was anxious to install a pro-American government there because it wanted to build an oil pipeline across the country were dismissed as another conspiracy theory.

But now respected academics like the British professor of politics, George Monbiot, have uncovered evidence that this is probably true. Monbiot says that just a few days before the attack on New York, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported: “Afghanistan’s significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from central Asia to the Arabian Sea.” Monbiot says, “I believe that the U.S. government is genuine in its attempt to stamp out terrorism by military force in Afghanistan, however misguided that may be. But it would be naive to believe that this is all it is doing.” Before this war is over, there will no doubt be other stories that are not covered, that are distorted, exaggerated, slanted and “spun.”

Does it matter?

In 1999, a group of American congressmen traveled to Yugoslavia because they felt that they could trust neither their own government nor the media to tell them what was really happening there.

“The enormous confusion which has taken place due to media manipulation on all sides has only contributed to the blood lust which — if it is the only basis for decision-making — could lead to a much wider and longer war.”

So yes, it does matter.

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